Is wastewater in India an emerging ecological problem or valuable resource?

Published on Jun 30, 2022 05:16 PM IST

The article is authored by Lior Asaf , who is a water attache along with Neeraj Gahlawat, who is a senior water resources specialist, Embassy of Israel, New Delhi.

Globally India is ranked as the 13th most water-stressed country, using more water the United States and China combine.
Globally India is ranked as the 13th most water-stressed country, using more water the United States and China combine.
ByHindustan Times

Water has endless dimensions and Krishna in the Mahabharata said, “Water is considered to be the supreme life force of living beings in this world”. With emphasis on the importance of water since the history of Ancient India, the water crisis presently in the country, is considered one of the major challenges. Water resources are under unprecedented and increasing pressure, driven by greater climate variability, population and economic growth, land-use changes and declining quantities and qualities of both ground and surface water. Globally India is ranked as the 13th most water-stressed country, using more water the United States and China combine. Groundwater that supplies many urban, commercial and industrial users is classified as stressed across much of India while surface water abstractions are reaching unsustainable levels leading to deterioration of the environment, decaling water levels in the aquifers and increasing competition and consequent conflicts between users.

All people want to live near a stream of fresh clean water. However, this is not always the reality. About 70% of the water and food we consume is transformed by our body machinery into waste. To treat the sewage modern society have developed technologies to reverse sewage back to water. In Israel, we transform more than 90% of sewage to water for agriculture, leaving almost no untreated water molecule behind.

The Israel has managed the water resources in a holistic manner. Israel has developed a model based on circular economy. Israel values water in a way that every drop of water is used twice. First, the water is used in households, around 95% of which is treated and then 90% of the treated wastewater is used for various purposes; 50% of the water requirements for agriculture of Israel are met from treated wastewater. The strategic relation of India-Israel can be utilised and Israeli models can be customised and adopted for the reuse of treated wastewater, particularly for agriculture using micro irrigation. This is the opportunity for India as country. The project design should be such that 100% reuse of treated wastewater would remain integral part of the project.

In India, there are missions like National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) through which the Indian Government has sanctioned sewage treatment infrastructure in Country. The Indian Government is working in a mission-mode to bridge the gap in the treatment capacity. Presently, the total volume of sewage generated by households in urban India is 72,368 megalitres per day (MLD) and the estimated infrastructure capacity to treat sewage is only 37%. Out of 54 cities with million plus population, only 32 cities have started to implement reuse of treated wastewater and presently the reuse around 17% only. Additionally, there are around 4,600 cities with population less than a million. The reuse is majorly for flood irrigation with water use efficiency of around 30% and in most projects there is lack of design for the reuse part. The overall efficient reuse of the treated wastewater is, however, debatable need a detailed management planning.

The Israel model cannot be copied directly due to various social and economic reasons. Additionally, India is large in size, population, and available water, with six-fold freshwater per capita available for use compared to Israel. These remarkable differences between the countries provide complimentary opportunities for strengthening the collaboration between Israel and India. The difference in size, population and water use between Israel and India is shown in the table below.

Area, km23,287,26322,000~ 150
Usable freshwater BCM*/year11231.2~935
Usable freshwater CM#/year per capita8021276.3
Freshwater for agriculture10100.5351887
Reuse (treated wastewater) for agriculture0.1680.6670.25

*BCM Billion Cubic Meters, #CM Cubic Meters

India will have more than 1.5 billion people by 2030, and providing the food needs of its entire population will be a daunting task. Water shortages in the country are going to make this task harder. Water-related issues are already affecting wheat and rice, India’s two major staple crops. As reported by United Nations in 2018, about 74% of the area under wheat cultivation and 65% of the area under rice cultivation faces significant levels of water scarcity.

Different Indian agencies such as dealing in urban development, water resources, agriculture and environment are working in silos and there is a need for detailed policy across all sector to initiates reuse of wastewater on large scale across India. The team from Israel Embassy, New Delhi visited Jodhpur, Rajasthan to understand the wastewater management of the city. Jodhpur generates about 110 MLD of wastewater; 85 MLD of the wastewater is treated at two sewage treatment plants (STPs) at Salawas and Nandari. The treatment is done up to secondary levels and the urban local bodies are planning to upgrade the treatment facilities to tertiary levels. The treated wastewater from the existing facilities is discharged in to the River Jhojri that is highly contaminated.

This river flows through the city and contains untreated wastewater from domestic and industrial establishments. As the Jhojri river flows out of the city, the farmers nearby collect the polluted water from the river and use it for irrigation. This is a big threat to the health of the consumers of these produces. In addition, the areas in vicinity, which are away from this river, grows only one crop and depend completely on rainfalls.

The treatment facilities of Jodhpur have potential to change the lives of hundreds of farmer families. The treated wastewater up to tertiary levels from the STPs can be utilised for irrigating around 6000 ha of land. Through micro-irrigation, the water can be made available to hundreds of farmer families for up to 10 months year around. The capacity building of farmers could lead to significant change in their lives and in the overall Gross Domestic Product of the area. This could become one model to realise the dreams of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for doubling the income of farmers. The model can then be customised for other water scarce areas of India. Wastewater should be looked up as essential resources for water stress India rather than mere ecological problem.

Israel and India can lead the way for sustainable development, to mitigate the large impacts of climate change, and to promote new water management programmes, advanced agricultural solutions, and reuse of wastewater on various scales tailor-made to the specific social, economic and political conditions of India.

The article is authored by Lior Asaf , who is a water attache along with Neeraj Gahlawat, who is a senior water resources specialist, Embassy of Israel, New Delhi.

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